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David Rokeby : Dreams of an Instrument Maker

(published in MUSICWORKS 30: Sound Constructions, Fall 1985) 

Instruments have always been, to some degree, an important part of the compositional process. Writing music for the guitar must take into account the nature of the guitar. Each instrument encourages different approaches. To some degree, all guitar compositions have drawn on something that has always and only been potential within the nature of that instrument.

Three cameras are set up in a room in a triangle facing inwards.

The instrument maker dreams... During the day, as he designs and makes his instruments, he dreams of the music that they will play... feels their potential as they sit silent on his racks. He wanted to be a composer. His head was full of musical ideas but he had difficulty translating what was in his head into music. After several years of struggle, he gave in to the urgings of his friends, who had always admired the instruments that he made as a hobby, and became an instrument maker.

Digital synthesizers and the computers that control them have given composers previously inconceivable control over sound.

The cameras are connected to a computer.

These instruments present new kinds of problems.

The instrument maker dreams. At night he dreams of instruments. Fantastic extensions of his thoughts and musings, these instruments weave their musics around his dreams. He wakes up with his heart beating furiously...

Technology encourages the exploration of entirely interior universes. Computers are an odd sort of rational dream machine.

The computer analyses any movements that take place in the field of vision of the cameras.

The first dream of the instrument maker: he dreamed that he had created an instrument that sat on the head, a bit like a large crown. It was capable of producing any imaginable sound. Any sound that occurred to him would instantly be played by the instrument, any combination of sounds... any music.

Unlimited control can be distracting. Trivialities can become obsessions. Structures can very quickly and easily become complicated, obscure and self-referential. New sounds are created in profusion but lose their meaning corrupts... Somehow, some of this control must be given away.

The computer perceives the location of people, how much of their body is in motion, the relative intensity ,suddenness, or continuity of their movements, and the locations of greatest activity.

Unless one has an absolutely clear idea of what one is trying to create, it all becomes a meaningless game played in an electronic playground.

The second dream of the instrument maker:

The easiest solution to these problems is to fall back on conventional approaches to writing and producing music, but this ignores the exciting challenges which these new instruments present.

In this dream he holed himself up into his studio for weeks in an attempt to complete a new instrument. As he worked, he whistled a tune which he had always intended to develop into a piece of music. He used patches of his own skin, locks of his hair and sections of bone from his limbs as sound sources. When it was finished, he took it and presented it to a local composer. The composer began to pluck, scratch and hit it in order to discover how to play it. But no matter what he did, the instrument played variations of the piece the instrument maker had been whistling.

The unique abilities of these instruments seem to propose a new approach to music, which would use to full advantage their unique potential. By this I do not mean the invention of new structural systems, or complex mathematical tunings, but a renovation of the relationship between music, the composer, and time itself.

The computer interprets the movements in the room and translates its impressions into sound using a specially configured digital synthesizer.

For me, the composition of music has always been an affectionate struggle with time. But digital synthesizers have changed one's relationship with time, by turning it into a freely manipulable substance. This dissolves much of the creative tension involved in the act of composing. At the same time, it creates a new challenge, but this challenge must be approached from a new direction.

He dreamt again: he dreamt that his wife was pregnant, but what she gave birth to was an instrument. Playing this instrument was rather strange. It did not seem to require any technical skills yet it was not an easy instrument to play. Like a snake, it would coil itself around the hands that tried to play it... You had to wrestle the music out of it.

An instrument contains a large number of simultaneous sound possibilities. Music is conventionally, an established sequence of these possibilities strung out through time. Somewhere between music and instrument there exists the possibility for a kind of labyrinth of sound, where there are many possible paths through one composition...

The music is created and played simultaneous to the movements it is related to.

The challenge ceases to be the molding of sound as it flows through time. The challenge becomes the creation of a music outside of time... a music of suspense, of potential sounds waiting to be drawn into time by functions of time (like motion).

The instrument maker dreams. As his dreams extend, his instruments begin to reflect those dreams. Just as music sat in potential in his head, it sat in potential in his instruments. And as this process developed, the potential for music that existed in his instruments resembled more and more closely the galaxy of possibilities that swam in his head.

The instrument becomes a volatile composition which is revealed through exploration, and changes within its character in response to external forces. The lines between composer and instrument maker, between listener and performer, become blurred.

This installation is a composition of musical potential... both an instrument, and a musical composition which exists outside of time. The composition is transformed into music through physical exploration of the space. In a sense, the installation is music experienced through space as well as time.

The music becomes a function of both the inner world of the creator's personal vision and the outer world of physical reality. Each are drawn into a creative relationship with the other through the mechanism of the instrument/composition.

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Copyright 1996 David Rokeby / Very Nervous Systems / All rights reserved. 3/7/96